Autonomy and (yuck!) Responsibility

When I was in high school I was (probably by mistake) placed in an honors class in social studies/history. The teacher had all of us write a short paper on what freedom meant to us. The next class, instead of our getting our papers back with the glowing comments and high grades we were accustomed to, the teacher dramatically dumped all the papers in the waste paper basket conveniently located right next to his desk.  As he surveyed our shocked and dismayed faces, he commented: “What you all wrote about freedom was fine as far as it went, but not one of you said anything about the other side of the coin that inevitably goes with freedom: responsibility.”  Today that teacher would probably be sued by angry parents for traumatizing and doing irreparable damage to the self-esteem of their children, but by now he is probably beyond the reach even of litigious parents.  The teacher, of course, had a point.

The same point is true for professional autonomy, which can only be justified if the person who has the autonomy uses it for responsible ends. No doctor or lawyer , for example, can justify her use of professional discretion unless that discretion is used in a responsible way, just as our right to freedom. like most of our “rights,” is never absolute or unqualified. Any of us over the on-rush of hormone-charged adolescent rebellion knows this intellectually. Whether we understand it emotionally is another matter, let alone accept it.  As Americans we want to see ourselves as the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I suspect too many of us think that also being the land of the responsible is just a drag.

Paradoxically, one disadvantage of  micomanagement is that while it may seem to increase responsibiility in employees by ensuring they are “responsible,” the reality is that these employees are being infantilized, made unwilling to make or simply incapable of making any decision even slightly beyond the ordinary.  This infantilization can ocur in both professional and non-professional jobs. I have seen it in offices with micromanaging bosses, and we all see it too freqently at the supermarket whenever the price on an item is not exactly correct and everything has to freeze in place while a supervisor is hunted down.  The same is true with most phone support operations, where  the person you talk to has to refer any answer beyond the near-obvious to a supervisor, adding to your time on the phone,  your frustration, and your blood pressure.

Ultimately granting people autonomy may not only be generally a more effective way to run an orgaization but a more efficient one as well.  Many would reject giving more autonomy to frontline employees who are perhaps not highly motivated and almost certainly not highly paid, but some brave supermarket chain should give it a try for week and see what happens.  And think how pleasant it is when you have a fairly compicated question for a frontline telephone support staff member and that person can actually fully address the problem without consulting one or more supervisors. The odds of that happening may be as rare as your getting an additional refund from the IRS because it made a mistake, but the joy is comparable.



Autonomy and (yuck!) Responsibility

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